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Without ethics, we in the newspaper industry, are nothing!

April 12, 2012

By Deborah McCaslin, Chief Publisher

Some not so good news hit my desk at the end of last week. When word comes that one of our own, broke a moral code we live by ... it hits home, and it hits home hard.
This week, a former Custer County Chief publisher, Jon Flatland, was exposed as a serial plagiarist. To me, that is nothing short of fraud. The article on the front page tells it like it is. And because he was involved at this newspaper, the very newspaper where my roots run deep, I find myself bewildered, disgusted, and offended.
No, wait, he was more than involved, he penned articles and columns on these very pages. We trusted his words to be his own. And now you, our loyal readers, have the right to know that what he is being accused of goes way back. It predates his tenure at the Chief. Which means the accusations extend to our backyard. And we didn’t know, we had no clue, until now.
The information on his exposure is reprinted with the permission of the Poynter Institute, the organization to the best of my knowledge, researched the story, wrote the story, and then placed the story on the web. A fellow journalist, and former Chief employee brought it to my attention.
First, something about Poynter. I want to set the record straight by starting with the reputation of the reporting institution.
Poynter is one of the premier (and to some thee premier) journalism educational institution in the United States today. And it doesn’t stop there, they teach, tutor and instruct in classrooms all over the world.
One of their key focuses is on ‘ethical decision-making and the power of diversity’ to quote their website. I believe those words to be true. This is one of those sources that when they ... the writers, the teachers, the thinkers of the institute, those in their think tank have something to say, I tend to listen.

The bottom line ... ethics count
We have a critical role in the newspaper industry. I believe our jobs as the historical record keepers to be excruciatingly important. No, we don’t always get it right, but we try. Yes, we are overworked, and maybe even under paid. Journalism isn’t a job you go into for the money. You go into it because you are driven. You strongly believe in the public’s right to know, and you are willing to fight for the principles you stand on.
You, our readers, have the right to know how your tax dollars are spent and how the decisions are made. Those decisions have to be made in open meetings, never behind closed doors.
You have the right to know when it is a felony who did the crime, and you need to know that our decision whether or not to publish is always made on the action, and never on the name. We will never withhold that information based on who someone’s family ties, nor on dollars and cents. There is no gray area in this matter, nor will there ever be, at least not on my watch.
We have the obligation to base our news on the day-to-day events that form our lives. We are your record keepers, your personal historical scribes.
It’s our job to always ask ... who cares? If the public cares, so should we. If they are talking about it, so should we. And if they don’t care, the question needs to be asked, should they?
It’s our job to live, work and be involved in the communities where we live. We are living the historical journey we are writing about. We have the pleasure of covering the good, and the obligation to cover the bad. This is who we are and what we do.
In a community the size of ours, when we cover a tragedy, there is a good chance we know the victim. We know the victim’s family, and we grieve as they grieve. We are impacted by the very news we write about. The ethics I talk about goes to our very core. It is the cornerstone we build our papers on.
When we report ... if there is a byline the words are ours. If they aren’t ours, it is our job to attribute where they came from. To do anything less is fraud. To do anything else is stealing.
When we take a picture ... it is what it is. If there is a telephone pole coming out of a head - so be it. It is what it is. Anything less in a news photo is fraud. As publisher, there is no place for plagiarism. There is no room. Either the words are yours, or they are someone elses. It deserves no discussion.
The ethics of our profession are that important. Without ethics, without these moral building blocks, we are nothing. For you, our readers deserve nothing less. This is that important.
I can’t tell you if the columns Flatland wrote for the Chief were his or not. Not yet ... but I will. For Flatland to routinely, as the Poynter article states, take words from others and slap his name on it is fraud. Their research claims it dates back decades. This is stealing, and it makes me angry.
According to Andrew Breaujon's article for Poynter, Flatland was fired from the Cavalier County Republican in Langdon, N.D., in the 1990s for plagiarism. He served as the Custer County Chief publisher from June 2001 - August 2002. Poynter also wrote that after Flatland was accused by David Fox of stealing his work, he resigned by email from his current job with the Times in Blooming Prairie, Minnesota, and “quickly and quietly left town.”
Breaujon writes that in the email, the Times publisher Rick Bussler “characterized Flatland’s email of resignation as saying something like, ‘Sorry, it’s true and I’m out of here. Flatland told Bussler he was leaving newspapering.”
In the words of Special Agent Jethro Gibbs - OK I watch NCIS ...
“Ya Think?”

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